Crimea, a mainly Russian-speaking area, has been a source of tension between Russia and Ukraine since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. It is the base for the Black Sea fleet, a vast naval force whose ownership is contested between Moscow and Kiev.
Ukraine's fears of resurgent Russian imperialism were already high because of the extremist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's success in last month's Russian elections. The Crimean result, and the emergence of ethnic Russian autonomy movements in eastern Ukraine, mean that President Leonid Kravchuk may face an even stronger outcry at home over his decision last week to hand over Ukraine's nuclear weapons to Russia for destruction.
Mr Zhirinovsky and other prominent Russian nationalist politicians, such as Sergei Baburin, deride the idea of an independent Ukraine. 'That's great news,' Mr Baburin said yesterday after learning of the Crimean result.
Mr Meshkov, who took 38.5 per cent of the vote, was one of five presidential candidates who campaigned for either Crimean independence or unity with Russia. The sixth candidate, Mykola Bagrov, who stood for co-operation with Kiev, came a poor second with 17.5 per cent. The odds favour Mr Meshkov when the two men contest the second round on 30 January.
Mr Meshkov said that, if he won the run-off, he would hold a referendum to determine Crimea's future. But Ukraine's leaders indicated that they might take preventive action. 'These presidential elections are illegal because there is no post of Crimean president in the Ukrainian constitution,' said an adviser to Mr Kravchuk.
Mr Meshkov tried to head off a confrontation with Ukraine's leaders yesterday by saying that he was more interested in economic ties than a full constitutional union with Russia. However, his political past suggests that he has other goals in mind. He once led the Republican Movement of Crimea, a pro- Russian political force that emerged as a result of protests in August 1991 against Ukrainian independence. When casting his vote on Sunday, Mr Meshkov said: 'I have made the choice that many in Crimea made long ago: for unity with Russia.'
It is uncertain whether President Boris Yeltsin would encourage a Crimean initiative to merge with Russia. Nevertheless both Mr Yeltsin and his political allies, often depicted as 'liberals' in the West, are increasingly asserting Moscow's influence over Ukraine and former Soviet republics.